The Ultimate Guide to Hiking The Inca Trail

One of the most popular walking trails in the world, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is well known all over the world with travelers who hope to see the famous sight one day. It gives hikers a unique approach to the mountain, and can help them avoid the tourist crowds that approach Machu Picchu each day via bus and train. But the actual trip down what is known as the Inca Trail can be more complicated than visitors realize. There is a lot to consider before strapping on a backpack and proceeding down the trail, including which route to take, what to bring along and when to go. Here are some of the most popular questions among travelers who are planning to try hiking along the Inca Trail.

What is The Inca Trail?

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is actually a system of three overlapping trails that lead to the base of Machu Picchu, an ancient Inca temple that dates back to the 1400s. Each of the trails passes through the Andes mountain range, and hikers are treated to several different types of weather and terrain as they walk. This can include alpine tundra, with scattered snow along the mountain roads, and immersive green mossy forests. There are also other Incan ruins to see along the way, no matter which path is taken. The three tracks that exist vary in difficulty and length, so visitors should familiarize themselves before going.

Mollepata is the longest trail, and hikers will climb up to 4000 meters above sea level as they scale the mountain pass that leads to Machu Picchu.  This trail takes several days to complete and can be physically challenging, but it also offers unique views of the small ruins and other evidence of Inca life along the route. An immersive experience, this path allows hikers to see local villages and plenty of historically significant places.

The Classic Trail also takes hikers up to elevations of higher than 4000 meters and includes several challenging sections, including stairs carved into the ground.  As with Mollepata, this route takes multiple days but affords visitors a complete experience and the ability to see many ruins. Some visitors prefer these smaller ruins, as they are not roped off and crowded the way Machu Picchu is, allowing them to explore more and get better pictures.

The One Day Trail starts from Aguas Calientes, a small village that hikers can travel to via bus from Cusco. This is a much more manageable than the longer hike for people who are not as physically fit or do not have as long to spend on the hiking portion of the trip. It is also more cost effective than taking a longer journey.

How Long Does It Take to Hike The Inca Trail?

The length of time taken to hike the trail can vary based on the route taken, the pace set by the guide group hired and weather conditions. Hikers on the classic trail can expect the trek to take around four days, with more experienced climbers getting done in as little as two days.

Do I Have to Be in Good Shape to Hike The Inca Trail?

Hiking the Inca Trail is physically taxing due to the diverse environments and high altitude. At certain points along the route, the height can cause hikers to experience altitude sickness, particularly those who are not athletic. Experts recommend that hikers arrive early and spend some time in Cusco to adjust to the altitude. While the route to Machu Picchu is higher than Cusco, the adjustment period can make altitude sickness less likely and severe.

In some portions of the trail, hikers can take a break and ride a pack animal, such as a mule or donkey, however animals are banned in other parts due to the damage their hooves can cause. This means that most of the trek is spent walking on hard, slippery stones, which can cause pain to the knees, ankles and feet. Walking poles and porters can help significantly in making the journey easier. Walking poles will help hikers keep balance on slippery sections and while walking downhill, but due to the damage metal tipped poles cause, they have to be rubber tipped to be allowed on the trail. Another way to decrease the load on individual hikers is to hire a porter to carry camping equipment and other necessary gear. This reduces the amount hikers need to carry and the impact on the joints.

When is the Best Time of Year to Go?

The worldwide popularity of the Inca Trail means that it is always crowded, and has also led the government to close the trail once a year. Each February, the trail is closed in order to keep it clean and maintained for future use. Another measure taken to protect and preserve the trail is the limiting of the amount of visitors. A maximum of 500 people are allowed on the trail each day. Of this number, less than half are hikers, and the rest are guides and related staff. This means that no matter what time of year a hiker wants to go to Peru, planning is required. The hiker will have to seek out a guide and apply for a permit before he or she can set foot on any of the trails. All of the permits are released in January for the full year, so even hikers who want to visit later in the year have to apply early on.

Hikers who choose to visit in the winter months, which last from June to August in the area, may be surprised to find that the nights can get very cold on the mountain. Temperatures can drop below freezing and there are not likely to be extra blankets or layers packed.

Will I Have to Hike Back?

Most hikers who travel the Inca Trail plan to take a train back to Cusco at the end of the trip. These trains, like the tourist site itself, can be very crowded at popular times of the year, so pre-booking is important.

Hiking the Inca Trail is a challenge and requires careful forethought and planning, but the effort is well worth the reward. Many groups choose to begin early and get to the site before sunrise, which is an unique experience that many people do not get to try, as the trains and buses bring most tourists to the site beginning at 10 AM. If you are looking to do something unique for your next adventure holiday, the Inca Trail might just be a perfect idea.